A few months ago, I found myself strangely transfixed by an ad on the train for a mattress company called Allswell. At first, I couldn’t tell what distinguished the advertisements from the dozens plastered on trains and platforms at any given time. After several train rides spent gazing at the unnaturally bright smiles of models perched happily on mattresses, I realized: it wasn’t the ads themselves that stuck with me, but rather their typography.
The Allswell logo uses Caslon Graphic, a striking and elegant font that lends an air of luxury and sophistication to a relatively young brand. Caslon Graphic belongs to a category of fonts called Didones. Didones are serif fonts, which means that unlike the font you are currently reading, the letter strokes have small feet on the ends. A Didone is characterized by long, narrow serifs, as well as a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes (see the difference in the curve and crossbar of the “e” in Allswell). Together, these elements give a Didone typeface a certain unmistakably refined quality that is often missing from sans serifs or even more traditional serifs such as Times New Roman.
Didones came into fashion around the turn of the 19th century, when printers and type designers began experimenting with modifications of the more traditional serif typefaces that had defined newsprint and advertisements throughout the 1700s. Firmin Didot from France and Giambattista Bodoni from Italy were the founding fathers of the style, which was then called “Modern”. “Didone”, coined long after their deaths, is a portmanteau of “Didot” and “Bodoni”, which are also the names of two long-standing Didones still in use today.
Over the past year or so, Didones has quietly slipped to the forefront of designing visual branding for new businesses and startups. There’s Winc, the wine club targeting millennials; Dame, the sex toy company; Everspring, Target’s line of green cleaning products; Welly, which manufactures first aid products; the list goes on, all with clean logos, Didone are at the center of their brands. It’s a trend, but it’s also much more than that: the sudden irruption of Didones represents a rejection of the typography and aesthetics that came to define the 2010s, and an attempt to carve out a new aesthetic space, just in time for the start of a new decade.
In order to understand the significance of the rising empire of the Didones, one must understand what has happened to typography over the past ten years. In the early 2010s, geometric sans serifs—those without serifs or contrast in stroke width, and whose letters are built around simple shapes like circles and squares—saw a dramatic increase in popularity in design. Web and digital. As geometric sans grew in prominence, elements such as drop shadows, gradients, background textures, and bevels began to disappear, leaving the flat digital aesthetic behind. and minimalist that you might see on Facebook, Airbnb or Postmates. Many designers cited a desire for increased readability on low-resolution displays as the reason for the change; the desire to increase page load speed probably also played a role.
In 2015, when Google and Facebook switched to geometric sans serif logos within months of each other, geometric sans serif typography and minimalist aesthetics had reached a saturation point, both online and offline. Among the alleged merits of Peak Minimalism was its implication of transparency: sparing brands stripped of all clutter and adornment felt trustworthy, as if excesses of style were a middleman between the consumer and the business that had been stripped. In the second half of the 2010s, however, oversaturation led to geometric sans serifs becoming somewhat obsolete. The same attributes that once signaled accessibility and usability began to read as sterile and impersonal as they became increasingly pervasive, especially among large corporations and tech companies.
Didones represents a complete about-face from the design philosophy of Peak Minimalism. Technically, didones and geometric sans serifs are more or less complete opposites: serif versus sans serif, intense stroke contrast versus none, large ascenders (letters like “h” and “t”) versus short. But there’s also a broader rejection of the 2010s aesthetic at play. Against the no-frills, gleefully uncluttered look of Google et al, the use of Didones in the context of marketing feels downright luxurious, whether that sense of luxury either applied to a mattress or a vibrator or even a first aid kit. It’s worth noting that in addition to the clear generational dynamics at play – the majority of these brands seem to market primarily towards young people – the new Didones seem to appear most often alongside brands that market towards women, be it Dame , Modcloth (a women’s clothing retailer), Flesh (a makeup brand including shades) or Kirsten Gillibrand’s brief presidential bid.
Earlier this year, Eliza Brooks suggested in an article for Vox that the return of serifs more broadly represents a throwback to the past, particularly to the groovy aesthetic of the 1970s. This influence is most evident in typography like that of Buffy, a startup that uses Cooper Black for its logo and branding, or Chobani, which opted for chunky new text in 2015. Perhaps the change isn’t so much a retreat toward the aesthetic of a particular historical period, but rather the inevitable swing of a pendulum one side of which has always been a form of minimalism, be it the Swiss modernism of the 1950s or the flat design of the 2010s.
The Internet has changed the conditions of graphic design in a way that is less prone to passing whims than typography. The need for cohesion between print and digital platforms — to make your company’s ads on the subway look like its ads on Instagram — has led to a minimalist zeitgeist that isn’t going away any time soon. Within the larger minimalist framework, however, ornate flourishes such as that of the Didones respond to their viewers’ need for respite from the visual austerity of the past decade and the political austerity for which it served as a style. by default. Sitting on the train, I found myself captivated by an ad for mattresses that I can’t afford, simply because its typography injected a moment of beauty into a day spent being bombarded with ads that, at rare exceptions, look more or less the same.
That Didones represents a break from design homogeneity right now doesn’t mean we couldn’t face a new Didone-centric homogeneity a decade from now. It’s too early to tell what the visual language of the 2020s will look like more broadly, whether it will look like the 2010s but with different typography, or whether the Didones will be at the helm of an entirely new style. Either way, it seems our relationship to typography and design is on the verge of a transformation, and I for one am excited to see what that brings.
Rachel Hawley is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graphic designer.